Women’s tennis

Mark Heller

After riding high with its best overall record in ten years and the highest Big Ten finish in school history, the Minnesota women’s tennis team finally looked ready to make a legitimate run at the conference title.
But the Gophers stumbled out of the blocks.
Minnesota earned a first-round bye to automatically advance to the quarterfinals, the Gophers’ singles play deserted them in a 5-2 loss to Iowa in East Lansing, Mich., on Friday.
Northwestern defeated Wisconsin 4-1 on Sunday to win its first Big Ten title since 1986.
The Gophers finished the season 15-6 overall, 8-3 in the Big Ten. Minnesota will hope for an at-large bid for the NCAA Regionals May 14-16.
“Overall this year fairly reflects our strengths,” Gophers coach Martin Novak said. “I’m very proud of what we did in the regular season. We’re better skilled than what we showed (against Iowa). But I’m optimistic we’ve done enough to get into the regional tournament.”
Minnesota won two of three doubles matches to win the doubles point. Jana Hrdinova and Kim Simonsen won their match at No. 1, as did Nora Sauska and Jen Howard at No. 3.
But Sauska was the only Gopher to win in singles. Only Tarah Elkins pushed her match to three sets before losing to Erica Johnson, 3-6, 6-3 and 3-6 at No. 5.
“I was very impatient and put more pressure on myself than usual,” said senior Sitinee Rangsithienchai, who lost to Natalya Dewaf 6-0, 6-3 at the No. 3 position. “I was a little tense and tried to make bigger shots than usual. The match went really fast, and before I knew it, it was over.”
Minnesota was not expecting an early exit from the tournament, especially after getting a first-round bye. But the three seniors — Hrdinova, Elkins and Rangsithienchai — are hoping to have one more crack at it before their doors close on collegiate tennis.
“I thought we would make the finals,” Rangsithienchai said. “Hopefully the regionals will give us another chance to finish our careers the way we had hoped.”
Both Novak and Rangsithienchai cited Minnesota’s travel schedule the past week as a possible contributor to the struggles in the tournament.
After traveling to Ohio State on April 23rd and then Penn State on the 25th, the Gophers didn’t get back home until about 3 a.m. on Monday morning. The team didn’t practice Monday or Tuesday in hopes of getting some rest and school work done before heading out to East Lansing in the middle of the week.
“We were not as strong as we could have been,” Novak said. “We were spent. The weekend before really cost us.”
But Novak was also quick to credit Iowa. “I’m not making excuses,” Novak said. “Iowa is a very good team who played very good tennis to win.”
The quarterfinal loss still might be enough to get the Gophers into the regional tournament.
Sixty-four teams are invited to regionals, with 16 regions of four teams. Minnesota was ranked 45th as of April 20th, and won four of five matches since then.
The top-seeded Wildcats’ win over No. 2 Wisconsin should allow the Gophers to finish third in the conference.
But once again, Minnesota’s fate will lie in a committee’s hands as to whether they will have to wait until next year.
“It will be close,” Rangsithienchai said. “With our record, we should be able to make it, and we all want one more chance.”